Posts Tagged privilege

We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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Growing the Beloved Community, Twelve Months a Year

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Not long after I’d moved to Connecticut in early 2001, I learned that there was a Unitarian Universalist congregation just up the road from me.  The first service I attended there was on Easter Sunday, and not long after that I went to an orientation and became a member.  Then something very strange happened.

Services came to an end for the Summer.

It turned out that, for the months of July and August, my congregation and the UU church in the next town had an arrangement where they would share services.  Anybody coming to one congregation, assuming there’d be a service, would be greeted by a hand-scribbled note taped to the door saying that services were being held at the other congregation.  Oh, and since the two congregations held their services at different times, well, there was no way…

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Broadening Minds, Deepening Spirits, Opening Hearts

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

In early 2002 I spent a couple of weeks in India. With most of my visit in Mumbai, I stayed in a house that at one time may have been considered opulent. When I was there, though, the paint was peeling from the walls, the plaster was falling from the ceiling, and the toilet had to be flushed with a bucket. All of the water needed for cooking and cleaning — and flushing the toilet! — was stored in large plastic bins that were filled via a garden hose from an outdoor faucet only at a certain time each day. Outside the house, traffic crowded the streets. Loud and smelly three-wheeled taxis wove around equally loud and smelly trucks and buses, not to mention cows and the occasional elephant, as well as people. And there were lots of people…

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From Selma to Raleigh

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 2nd 2014.)

On March 8th 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to religious leaders around the country.  That telegram read as follows:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.  No American is without responsibility.  The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.  I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.

One hundred and thirty one Unitarian Universalist ministers answered that call, as well as twice that number of UU laypeople.  Joining about two thousand African American laypeople, many of them women and children, there were, in all, some four hundred and fifty religious leaders in that second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9th 1965.  In other words, nearly a nearly a third of the clergy who were there were Unitarian Universalists.  In fact one out of every five UU ministers answered Dr. King’s call to Selma, and in the days that followed more joined them.  The UUA’s President and Board of Trustees even adjourned their scheduled meeting, flew from Boston to Alabama, and reconvened in Selma.  As Victor Carpenter, who was serving as minister to the Unitarian Church of Cape Town at the time, summarized it:

These ministers had been called to perform a profound religious witness. It filled them with purpose and hope as well as fear and uncertainty. They were marching with America’s greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century in a struggle against an unambiguously evil system of racial hate. Their lives were on the line. For many it was the most thrilling and personally ennobling time in all their years.

In just about every account of Unitarian Universalist history, you’ll find that the response of UUs to Dr. King’s call to Selma has consistently been a huge point of denominational pride.  “We were there,” we tell ourselves.  “When it mattered most, we showed up.”

It is not, of course, a story without tragedy.  And it’s embedded in a considerably larger story as well, a story that all Americans would do well to know better.

Records show that in 1961, Dallas County, Alabama was home to some 15,000 African Americans, representing more than half of the county’s population, many of them living in the county seat of Selma.  Of those 15,000, however, only 130 were registered to vote.  In other words, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County could vote, and that wasn’t unusual for Alabama and other parts of the South.  Efforts to help more African Americans register were frequently blocked by local and state officials, by a white supremacist organization called the Citizens’ Council of America, and by the Ku Klux Klan.

That blocking manifested in ways that included literacy tests, economic pressure and outright violence.  Organizers with the Dallas County Voters League were beaten.  African American school teachers who tried to register to vote were fired by the all-white school board.  Local ordinances were passed that made it illegal for civil rights groups to meet even to talk about voter registration.  President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might as well have happened in another country for all that it made a difference in Selma.

Then the Dallas County Voters League asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been leading successful campaigns of boycotts and non-violent protests across the South.  The Selma Voting Rights Movement was launched on January 2nd 1965, when Dr. King and others defied the anti-meeting ordinance at Brown Chapel.  Along with activists from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they organized protests and voter registration drives there and in other counties.

On February 18th, one such protest took place in Marion.  Alabama State Troopers had been ordered to target the organizer, and many of the protesters fled when the troopers rushed them.  Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to hide, with his mother, in a nearby café, but a trooper followed them and shot Jackson.  He was twenty-six years old and the only wage-earner in his household.  He died eight days later from an infection.

The leaders of the Selma Voting Rights Movement called for a march to Montgomery to demand answers from Governor George Wallace.  With so much pain and anger, the march was intended to provide a non-violent focus, something that Dr. King supported.  The governor, on the other hand, called the march “a threat to public safety” and promised to do whatever he could to prevent it.

On March 7th, some five or six hundred protesters set out from Selma, led by John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found Alabama State Troopers waiting for them, blocking the bridge.  The troopers’ ranks were even supplemented with conscripts, thanks to the sheriff’s order for all while adult males in Dallas County to be deputized that morning.  The protesters were told to disband, but when Lewis and Williams went forward to talk to the commanding officer, the troopers attacked, knocking protesters to the ground, beating them, firing tear gas at them, even charging them on horseback.  Seventeen protesters were hospitalized, though many more were injured, and television coverage sparked national outrage over what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.

That was when Dr. King sent out his telegram, organizing a second march that would go at least as far as the bridge, for a time of prayer on the bridge itself, given a new court order prohibiting a march all the way to Montgomery.  This time there were about two and a half thousand protesters.

On the evening of March 9th, however, three of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who had gone to Selma — Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb — were attacked outside by white segregationists.  Reeb was hospitalized after being struck on the back of the head and he died two days later.  On March 15th, Dr. King gave the address at Reeb’s memorial service, which was held in Brown Chapel, and UUA President Dana Greeley offered the prayer.  And with protests outside the White House and in cities across the country, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

There were, of course, other victims.  Viola Liuzzo was a UU layperson from Michigan, who was killed by Klansmen as she was driving to Montgomery to pick up protesters participating in the third march from Selma.  And Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, was killed by a deputy sheriff after a week in jail for participating in a protest.  And when the deaths of the white activists gained more attention than had that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, well, that drew understandable complaints.  As a 2001 UU World article about the dedication of a new memorial to Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo at UUA headquarters put it:

Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson’s death did not generate a sympathy call from the President of the United States, but that Reeb’s death did.  The President himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson.

It wasn’t until 2007, in fact, that the Alabama State Trooper who had shot Jackson forty-two years earlier was charged with murder; he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.  Back in the 1960s, at least, the UUA had used some of the money donated in memory of James Reeb to buy a house and establish a fund to help support Jackson’s family.

I relate this decidedly unhappy history for a few reasons.

First, it hasn’t been even fifty years since these events took place.  Some of the people who took part in them are still alive, from John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress, to Clark Olsen, who a few years ago I heard address the UU Ministers Association on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  These events are very much a part of who they are.

Second, we should be proud of how Unitarian Universalism responded to Dr. King’s call.  Our version of a denomination had, after all, only just come into existence with the 1961 consolidation of the Universalists and the Unitarians.  Moreover, as Victor Carpenter and others would have us always acknowledge and remember, the white UUs who went to Selma acted at the direction of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and its African American leadership, something that represents what was, for the times, a remarkable suppression of those UUs’ own white privilege.

Third, knowing this history gives us more than enough reason to be thoroughly outraged that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that it took forty-five years to convict Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer, it’s an insult to his memory and to James Reeb’s memory and to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure that everyone could have access to the most basic tool of citizenship and democracy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder gives new depth to the word “stupid”.  I could use a few other words that aren’t appropriate for a Sunday morning, too.  Objecting to the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties had to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the court’s majority opinion as “things have changed”.  You know, we have a black President, and racism has magically gone away.  Yeah, right.

Now Justice Roberts did try to explain how “things have changed”, claiming that the country could no longer be divided into states and counties that embrace Jim Crow and those that don’t, and that maintaining such a division on the basis of history was unreasonable.

Well, he ignored the fact that jurisdictions can prove to a court that they meet certain criteria for getting themselves off the list needing Justice Department pre-clearance, just as counties in Virginia have done.  He also ignored the fact that Shelby County was incapable of meeting those “bail out” criteria because it continued to try to disenfranchise African Americans.  And as Justice Kagan put it, “You’re objecting to the formula [used to determine coverage by the Voting Rights Act], but under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Well, now we have “things have changed” as a legal precedent.  Only in most places, they haven’t changed much in fifty years.  As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissenting opinion, “Jurisdictions covered by the pre-clearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the pre-clearance remedy eliminated.”  And yes, she was right.  Within hours — not days; hours — of the Supreme Court decision, officials in Texas and Mississippi — both states subject to pre-clearance — announced that they would begin enforcing voter identification laws that the Justice Department had rejected as discriminatory.

The champion of disenfranchisement, however, is North Carolina.  One month to the day after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a whole package of changes to voting laws, including just about everything that’s been tried to suppress voting, from rejecting student identification to shortening polling hours, from restricting provisional voting to making illegal paid voter registration drives.  Such changes are claimed to be necessary to combat voter fraud, where somebody shows up at a polling station claiming to be someone else, but no evidence of such in-person voter fraud has ever been found.

It’s not about any such thing as combating voter fraud, of course.  That’s just how it’s being packaged and sold in the hopes that the public will let it slide.  Rather, it’s about voter suppression, particularly suppression of the voting rights of African Americans, women, students, the disabled and the poor.  The sad thing is that apparently it doesn’t take much to get someone pushing these changes to voting laws to admit that.  North Carolina elections official Don Yelton was even fired after bragging about voter suppression tactics on The Daily Show last Fall.  During the middle of the interview, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi actually interrupted one of Yelton’s racially offensive tirades to ask, “You know we can hear what you’re saying, don’t you?”

In response to the emergence of what is being called the New Jim Crow, people began organizing, just as they did fifty years ago.  In North Carolina, their efforts coalesced in the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  Nine Unitarian Universalist ministers serving congregations and communities in North Carolina even made the commitment to engage in civil disobedience as part of the Movement, resulting in their arrest.  And on December 18th, they sent out this message:

Here in North Carolina, we have known no vacation from the struggle for voting rights.  And now, we find ourselves in the midst of an ugly battle for democracy.

As ministers and citizens of North Carolina, we’ve felt compelled to respond to this threat.  We have borne witness to a movement across our state that is resisting the immoral and undemocratic actions of our legislature and governor.  With many from the congregations we serve we’ve taken part in Moral Mondays[. …]

We went because we knew that to suppress the vote is to suppress the spirit of a person.  We knew that any attempt to erode our democracy is rooted in a desperate history of paralyzing, painful politics that would serve none of us.  We knew that our own history, and the sacrifices made by those before, called us to this struggle.  And we knew that democracy is not simply a type of governance, but is a spiritual value. […]

We have continued to show up in Raleigh and across North Carolina.  We are committed to resist laws that aim to suppress the voice of the people by reducing early voting, requiring unnecessary government-issued identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud) and ensuring that our students are penalized for voting on campus.  It’s unconscionable.  It’s immoral.  It’s dangerous.

We know North Carolina is being viewed as a test state to unleash these regressive chains of injustice across the country.

That is why […] we ask for you to join us in Raleigh on Saturday, February 8th, when the NAACP will host the ‘Mass Moral March on Raleigh’ as part of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. The NAACP has a vision that this will be the most massive moral rally in the South since Selma.  And we need it to be.  We write to you to ask you urgently to come join us […] as we respond to the spiritual call to engage in the struggle.

When I read this, back in December, I knew that I had to go.  Knowing what I do of our history, I knew that I had to go.  The letter from the North Carolina ministers was drawing of course, upon the legacy of Dr. King’s telegram.  Their letter was rather longer, of course, given that the cost of a telegram was per word whereas an e-mail costs the same regardless of length or content, at least until Verizon gets its way.  But the spirit was the same, and they knew that when they wrote it, and it’s had the effect they intended by it.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not going alone.  Around twenty of us from the Fellowship are going, and I think that includes some children.  That’s a fabulous response from a small congregation like ours.  And we’ll be in Raleigh with several hundred of our fellow Unitarian Universalists and several thousand of our fellow citizens on Saturday morning, when we march from Shaw University to the North Carolina State Capitol.

Thankfully some things really have changed, though that probably has more to do with cell ‘phone cameras and social media than it does with legislation or judicial opinion.  We won’t be confronted by armed state troopers with orders to attack us with tear gas or charge us on horseback.  So far as I know there aren’t any plans for anyone to engage in civil disobedience, either.  The worst hazard we face, in fact, is the rain that’s currently forecast for Saturday.

Not everyone can go, of course.  Not everyone wants to go.  And that’s okay.  But whether we’re going or not, I hope we all realize that we are at a turning point in history, just as we were fifty years ago.  And by “we” I mean not only the United States as a nation but Unitarian Universalism as a faith, too.

In one of his final sermons, which was given at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC, James Reeb said that “We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.”  Well, that’s just as true today as it was fifty years ago.  And it’s part of our heritage, part of the living tradition that we begin to embrace when we join a congregation like this one.  We may not do it perfectly.  We have made mistakes — as a congregation, as a denomination — and I can guarantee that there will be mistakes in our future.  But by taking part in public witness and advocacy, or by supporting and affirming those who do, simply by being here in this imperfect microcosm of the Beloved Community that we hope to realize, we are all of us lending the weight of our souls to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

So may it be.

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The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

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In Service to Love

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

— Blake Covenant of 1894

Ours is an engaged religion.  Whether we’re cooperating in one another’s faith development, supporting our own members struggling with adversity or working with our community partners to address social needs, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the lives and the world around them.

Such engagement does indeed take many different forms.  Each of us, for instance, is a steward of our own community, accepting the responsibility to take care of something we do not own.  Membership represents a commitment to not only support our congregation financially, but to also help realize our shared vision of “spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community”.  Every time we teach a class or participate in a discussion group, every time we take a meal to a member recovering from surgery, every time we volunteer at St. Paul’s or the Living Interfaith Network, we help bring that vision alive.

While engagement and stewardship are characteristics of any self-organizing group of freely associating individuals with a vision for themselves and their world, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not simply another community group working on social or environmental issues.  The overriding characteristic for UUs is that, while we foster community and address issues, we do so in service to love.

That is why we emphasize covenant, the promises we make to ourselves and to each other about how we intend to behave within beloved community.  Love isn’t easy, whether we’re talking about amorous devotion or beneficent compassion.  Covenant brings us back to our best selves, providing a framework for those times when love is proving more challenging that we’d like, and service to one another and the wider world provides a mechanism for cultivating and re-cultivating that love.

It’s tempting, when first confronted with an issue of injustice, to remain at a certain level of theory and abstraction.  There are certainly no shortage of causes that might impel us to write a letter to the newspaper editor or to a political representative, to educate ourselves on the issues or try to convince others of their importance, even to join a demonstration or a protest.  And those are all valuable activities that are essential to changing systems and structures of oppression.  Also essential — and, in my experience, a powerful source of motivation and resilience — is direct engagement with and service to oppressed communities and those who suffer injustice.

After all, no newspaper article or television report will teach you about poverty or hunger or homelessness like volunteering at a food bank or a shelter.  Nothing will build another’s self-esteem like helping a disadvantaged child to read or meeting a homeless person’s eyes with a genuine smile — nor warm your heart and grow your soul, too.  And nothing dismantles privilege like entering in humility what would otherwise be a relationship governed by relative power, deferring to the wisdom of the oppressed and remaining accountable to those whom society renders powerless.

Rather than denying the world and ourselves, Unitarian Universalism calls us to boldly engage with them, seeking ways of being that strive for peace and justice, and living into the beloved community that fully embraces the humanity of every human being and the preciousness of life on Earth.  If love, in the words of James Vila Blake, “is the spirit of this church and service its law”, how are you answering the call of our living tradition?

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